I dont fault Dan Rather for going to Baghdad. If someone had interviewed Hitler in 39 for three hours, we'd prize the tapes as an invaluable historical document. Every year the History Channel would run them without commercials: Hitler Unplugged. Granted, the interview would consist of one question followed by three hours of spittle-shower ranting, but it would be the sort of up-close-and-personal document we dont have of Herr Hitler. Hes always on the podium pounding and howling, or smiling as he pats the cheek of some doomed Hitler Youth, or staring off in full Adoph Mode as the Robotmach stomps past in endless parade. We have plenty of Fuhrer, but very little Hitler. To see him in repose out of uniform, dog at his feet, fire crackling behind him, peering over steepled fingers as he takes in the translation of the question - well, it wouldnt tell us anything new, but it would be fascinating to see him just being unnervingly normal.
The passage of time makes these men seem unhuman. We need to remember that they weren't dropped on the planet by leather-winged minions of Moloch. They were people. Hitler brushed his teeth; Hitler took a leak and may have whistled while he did so. He may have clipped his toenails while listening to light opera on the Gramophone. Being evil is not a full-time job.
The tyrants of the 20th century have become iconic, and as such they seem to exist divorced from human nature. Men that evil are so rare it's almost comforting to watch them - oh, we'd know their kind if they came again. But we don't. The lesson is lost. Hitlers and Stalins and Maos and Kim Il Jungs arent the anomalies, really; there are millions of people like them. Theyre just the ones who had what it took.
But many people are hesitant to put Saddam in Pandemoniums echelon - why? Possibly because he has the characteristic of a comic figure, a cliché, a ridiculous man whose most visible crimes seem to be sins against our notions of good taste. He builds gilded gaudy palaces; he wears silly hats; he fires rifles in the air; he does the obligatory dictator-swimming-in-cold-river bit to prove his virility. He looks almost goofy when he smiles. His rhetoric is larded with mythic grandiosity that amuses the jaded Western ear. Simon from "American Idol" would cut him to shreds: "first, lose the moustache; we're not shooting a porno movie and it's not 1979. Second, I don't believe your gestures. I believe you believe them, but that hardly counts. I don't hear passion. I don't hear hate. I sense hate, but I don't feel hate."
Perhaps this is why so many oppose his ouster by military means - why, its like bombing a McDonalds to get the Hamburglar.
What made Rathers trip such a waste was the water-kneed obsequiousness of it all. He was more interested in three full hours of bland conversation than 20 minutes of sharp discussion that ended with Saddam leaving the room. What was there to fear? Anyone think Saddam would have him shot? Stand up in the middle of the interview, put a round through Rathers skull and yell at his dead body for five minutes? Since the Iraqis controlled the production facilities, CBS apparently feared they wouldnt get the tape if Rather didnt gargle with Meek Juice before each question. Fine. As long as you realize that Rather would have been tougher on the Pope. He would have looked at that old man, his ancient head turtling up from his robes, and asked him to explain the policy against ordaining women. The tone of Rathers voice - respectful but pointed - would have been aimed at the people watching back home. Im not letting the Pope get one past us, friends.
Not so with the Saddam interview. The deference was pathetic, the questions toothless, the answers predictable.
Sometimes history is farce the first time.
Ive also been chewing on the Presidents speech on the future of the Middle East. As with most of the Big Picture speeches, I didnt expect that. At this point I feel like Emperor Palpatine, reclining back in my chair, sunk in my robes, murmuring everything is going exactly as I have foreseen. I am not alone here; Im sure many got the same feeling I did the week after 9/11. I thought, well, this is it, the next World War - call it three or call if four, its here. This wont be one campaign. This wont be about symbolic reprisals or measured strategic responses. Its root-and-branch time, and when it's done years from now everything will be better, or it will be cinders. That's how it seemed in September 2001.
Months pass, and my initial impressions remain. Ive always thought that this would all make sense in retrospect. Granted, history always makes sense in retrospect. But the course seemed obvious from the start, if one was serious about vanquishing the culture that toppled the towers: Afghanistan first to cripple Al Qaeda, Iraq second for reasons strategic and political; Iran would fall of its own accord, the screws would be put to the Saudis, and Syria would experience severe testicular shrinkage. Oh but why not invade Saudi Arabia first? The hijackers were from there after all. No one who makes this point seriously suggests we should do such a thing. It is not necessary to occupy a country to rearrange its policies. With Iraq we have the Perfect Desert Storm - 12 years of flipping the bird to the UN, constant firing on coalition aircraft, assassination attempts, WMD programs, sociopathic leadership, suicide bomber funding, and - best of all - a UN mandate that will either make the UN an instrument of change, or push it out of the way as an irrelevant chatterbox, a clown-stuffed circus car that can never advance into the intersection because the light is never green, never red, always yellow.
But, that's just me. To some Iraq is key; to others, it's irrelevant, and I don't think we can find common ground at this late date.
The critics of the administrations approach seem to fall into three categories:
1. People who disagree with the plan but regard the argument as a contest of equals - i.e., a case of intelligent people reaching different conclusions
2. People who think Bush is so stupid the Secret Service has to zip up his fly so Lil Dubya doesnt get caught in the zipper; these people think that the Moron-in-Chief signs on to whatever his brimstone-scented aides put before him
3. People who think that Bush is well aware of the secret nature of his grand war scheme, and is pushing it through because A) he is an OOIIILMAN and B) he is an evangelical Christian, and hence is keenly interested in bombing kindergartens in other countries.
Ive no time for two or three. In the last few days Ive heard people on the radio insist that Bush is motivated by the Bilderburgers, by the CFR, by the Bible, by some policy paper written 10 years ago that suggested a muscular approach to strategic defense, by filial duty, by a desire to destroy the middle class, by Jewish interests, and by a secret desire to dissolve democracy and institute the sort of corporate rule we saw in Rollerball. Just as hatred of Clinton warped the hard far right and turned them into nutballs who believed the President personally oversaw airlifts of CIA-delivered coke to Arkansas airfields, so this furious frustration occludes the vision of the Bush-haters. They see 9/11 as a pretext, nothing more.
But. One of the pillars that holds up their ceiling is a long, detailed critique of American foreign policy - specifically, our support for governments that kept their thumb pressed hard on the jugular of their population. No wonder we were attacked, went the argument; look at the oppression we have supported. Bushs last speech did an end-run around the root causes line, and reiterated the point made in the SOTU - Arabs deserve freedom. The United States is going to provide proof.
It would be just another speech, just another collection of euphonious platitudes - if it werent for the sword weve slowly unsheathed over the last six months. No one in the region could mistake the implications of that address. You have to be tone-deaf not to see how many different melodies are contained in those simple statements. It's not something that threatens to destablize the region. It's a promise.
Whether we can do it, or should, is of course the issue reasonable people can debate. But let's not waste time rolling our eyes at another example of Yanuqui simplisme. Rote obescience to "complexity" is what got us in this mess. We mistook the governments of the countries for the countries themeselves. We focused on mapping the contours of the Gordian Knot, not on teasing out the strands that made up the rope. So now someone suggests we cut the knot, as we've been advised to do for decades - and everyone's horrified that we've raised our hand to strike. Why? Perhaps because it's Bush who's made the decision to act.
I get this feeling, over and over again: it is better that the right thing never come to pass than let the wrong men make it happen.
But why are they wrong, exactly? Many are worried simply because they have faith in the cause. Joe Klein wrote a piece in which he expressed alarm at the administrations lack of public equivocation, its constant protestation of its beliefs. It echoes the poet's warning: the worst are filled with a terrible certainty. Over the years weve forgotten the "terrible" part and come to think of certainty itself as a warning flag - the fact that a mind is made up must surely mean that mind is closed. Ambivalence, doubt, hesitation, conspicuously paraded for everyone to admire - these are the marks of a leader. We should shrink from certainty as a dog shrinks from fire. Resolution is fine - if its followed by numbers and voted upon by a council of ministers. Resolution in the heart of a man is a thing to be feared, regardless of what the man resolves.
Or so some believe. I dont. The world would change if we did nothing; now we seek to shape the change. Better this than letting the change shape us.
And so, God help us, to war.